If you read Martin Amis without a pencil handy, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.
The kind of trouble that involves searching, later, for the really great bits. Which is the more troublesome because you’ll get distracted by all the bits that are merely very, very good. Which means that when you’re looking for the perfect little Amis passage on the English novel, or fellatio, say, or even on beauty, you’re going to have to read the whole book again.
Not that re-reading Martin Amis is ever a chore: but you’ll be impatient to get to a real, world-stopping zinger.
The Pregnant Widow is Amis’ latest, and undoubtedly his best. He’s been working up to this: the black humour, the pathos, the phenomenal insight into people and the liberal sprinklings of learning are mixed expertly. Nothing is out of place. Reading The Pregnant Widow is like watching a flair bartender mix a vodka martini, accepting it with suspicion, and taking a first tentative sip only to discover that it’s perfect.
Keith, Lily, Scheherazade, Whittaker and Gloria are summering in Italy in 1970: the sexual revolution is in full swing, and the summer will make or break each and every one of them. Keith and Lily are An Item, Scheherazade is waiting for her Timmy to come back from Jerusalem, Gloria is in disgrace after a coke-fuelled lapse with a polo pro. And a whirling galaxy of characters orbits the main set.
There’s Adriano, who is in love with Scheherazade: although he’s stinking rich, he’s four feet ten inches short (does that height ring a bell? ‘She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock…’ Nabokov’s Lolita, of course). There’s Amen, Whittaker’s boyfriend, who is so traumatised by the sight of Scheherazade’s bare breasts that he can’t stand to be near her: and there are deliciously countless others.
The novel is really and finally about Keith:
“This is the story of a sexual trauma. He wasn’t at a tender age when it happened to him. He was by any definition an adult; and he consented – he comprehensively consented. Is trauma, then, really the word we want (from Gk ‘wound’)? Because his wound, when it came – it didn’t hurt a bit. It was the sensory opposite of torture. She loomed up on him unclothed and unarmed, with her pincers of bliss – her lips, her fingertips. Torture: from L. torquere ‘to twist’. It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for twenty-five years.”
If you think that ‘pincers of bliss’ is a bit much, then you missed the (admittedly rather subtle) Shakespearian allusion: ‘I am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black’ (Antony and Cleopatra, I.v.28). In the mean time, just relax, and listen to the cadences of that prose roll with effortless, frictionless certainty.
The Pregnant Widow charts the successes and failures of the sexual revolution: those it emancipated, and those it destroyed. The more you know about Martin Amis, and the more you’ve read him, the more you realise how heartbreakingly autobiographical this novel is at times – but only at times. For the most part, it’s the sort of Amis romp you want to take more often: dangerous, fascinating, erudite and hilarious.
But the comedy, dark or otherwise, is only one aspect of this novel: the real issue at the centre of it is just as relevant to generation Y as it is for Amis’ own:
“What do you do in a revolution? This. You grieve for what goes, you grant what stays, you greet what comes.”
That’s change for you – and in a perennially changing world, it’s not a bad set of fatalistic maxims to have.
There’s just too much of this novel to encompass in a review: I could go on quoting underlined passages forever.
But if you’ve any sense, you’ll buy the book, and go hunting for passages to underline for yourself.